Boris Johnson has got EU so rattled they fear a post-Brexit ‘Cold War’ – John McLellan

New Prime Minister Boris Johnson is proving an ebullient antidote to the SNP and Corbynites and he’s shaking things up in Brussels, writes John McLellan

Boris Johnson has already adopted what EU negotiator Michel Barnier described as a 'rather combative' approach (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)
Boris Johnson has already adopted what EU negotiator Michel Barnier described as a 'rather combative' approach (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

Titled to snare the passing mass-market trade, American pop-philosopher Mark Manson’s latest effort, “Everything is f***ed”, did the trick on me as I went through Glasgow Airport a couple of weeks ago looking for a holiday reading top-up.

Subtitled “a book about hope”, its conclusion that we should all look forward to the day when artificial intelligence subsumes our individual consciousness and independent ambitions would be profoundly depressing if it wasn’t so ludicrous. Maybe AI will indeed take over our minds, but that we should welcome the prospect? Bunkum, but Mr Manson’s observations along the way have more than a ring of truth in them, particularly what he calls the “Paradox of Progress” by which the more comfortable we feel and the more wealth we accrue, the worse we feel.

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“An irrational sense of hopelessness is spreading across the rich, developed world,” he writes. “People are more educated and literate than ever before... Half the planet has access to the internet, extreme poverty is at an all-time low worldwide... Children are dying less and people are living longer... We’ve, like, cured a bunch of diseases and stuff... Basically we are the safest and most prosperous humans in the history of the world, yet we are feeling the most hopeless than ever before. The better things get the more we seem to despair.”

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The Manson explanation sounds uncannily like lines from both the 2014 Yes campaign and the Leave arguments in 2016; both promised hope for the future on the back of despair about the present despite clear evidence of improving circumstances, and both argued that if only one thing could change then everything would be better. “Hope doesn’t care about the problems that have already been solved, hope only cares about the problems that still need to be solved,” says Mr Manson. “To build and maintain hope we need three things: a sense of control, a belief in the value of something and a community.” Sound familiar? The UK being a net contributor of some £8.9bn to the EU and Scotland having a deficit of 7.9 per cent of GDP (£13bn) compared to the UK’s 1.5 per cent (£32bn) somewhat alters the equation, which will no doubt be misinterpreted as a lack of belief in Scotland rather than a belief in value of the UK and our successful community of nations.

A sense of belief was certainly the hallmark of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s inaugural statement on Thursday, one of the most riotous Commons assemblies for many years. Mr Johnson’s promise of a new “golden age” for the UK certainly put fire in the bellies of Conservative supporters and as early as Thursday afternoon the Daily Telegraph was speculating: “Could he finally be the one?” As a Jeremy Hunt-voting Conservative councillor, I have to admit his performance gave me a greater sense of confidence that, deal or no deal, the fight will be taken to the opposition North and South in ways we have not seen before.

Mr Johnson’s rasped his unbridled enthusiasm for the United Kingdom at the Labour benches with relish, which comes back to the Manson analysis; much of the SNP and Corbynite Labour arguments rely on an intrinsic belief that Britain is not just broken but irreparable. Despite all his faults, Mr Johnson is the ebullient antidote. Can his considerable baggage be simply cast by the roadside in his forced march to leave the EU behind on 31 October? Can the level of energy, determination and ruthlessness displayed in the first 24 hours of his tenure be sustained? Can all the in-your-face, arm-waving self-belief carry enough votes in the Commons to get some sort of Brexit deal through?

Despite Thursday’s fireworks, opponents will say not, but clearly enjoying every second of the two-and-a-half hours he was on his feet in which he responded to 129 questions, Mr Johnson sent a very clear message that he really doesn’t give a damn what they think.

Chutzpah doesn’t amount to a plan, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one and the early signs are both Europe and Ireland are rattled; Irish agriculture minister Michael Creed said the new UK approach was “quite alarming” and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier instructed EU members to “remain calm, stick to our principles... and show solidarity”. Yesterday, Europe’s fears of a post-Brexit “Cold War” were being reported. Whatever opponents might think, in the space of 24 hours the rules of engagement have been shredded.

Analysts will be looking for evidence or otherwise of a Boris Bounce, but now Parliament is in recess he must wait till September to play wiff-waff with the opposition and establish his Dispatch Box personality on public consciousness. Despite an aversion to TV debates during the leadership campaign, after Thursday’s skewering of Mr Corbyn, Mr Johnson will relish the opportunity to go toe-to-toe on live TV, and with the probable deterioration of the Conservative parliamentary arithmetic in next week’s Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, a snap election now seems even more likely.

The combination of the brutal reshuffle and the hammering home of the 31 October deadline are designed to make the Brexit Party irrelevant and present its leader Nigel Farage with the conundrum that standing candidates in a General Election and splitting the Leave vote could guarantee the failure of his only policy. So here’s a guess: the recess to finalise preparations for no-deal and make sure Europe knows about it, the first fortnight of September in Parliament to keep Labour on the back foot, then the announcement of a three-week General Election campaign – 10 October is the week after the Tory conference and if you’ve got anything planned that day maybe factor in a visit to a polling station.

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Is everything f***ed? Not quite, but for once we’ll know soon.

David Mundell played key role in saving Union

The tributes to ex-Scottish secretary David Mundell after his sacking have not made much of his key role behind the scenes during the independence referendum campaign, not only in recognising Ruth Davidson’s strengths before most, but in holding together the often fractious and dysfunctional cross-party effort.

With an ineffectual Michael Moore at the Scotland Office and lacklustre Labour control of the Better Together campaign, it fell to Mr Mundell to ensure David Cameron and the Number 10 machine remained fully engaged and his calm diplomacy meant that trust was maintained when political partners were looking for evidence of plots.

Plenty of those around him are now in the Lords and the only way he should not be joining them soon is if he turns it down.